At wine country’s hot new restaurant, Kyle and Katina Connaughton shoot for Michelin stars. Do they live up to the hype?
By Trevor Felch
Around hour three of a five-hour dinner marathon, out comes glistening, vibrantly magenta medallions of aged duck that could pass for Wagyu beef. Each slice contains so much elegant gamey intensity accumulated over the years that you worry the bird could explode from robust flavor. It explains everything about Single Thread, Sonoma County’s buzzy new restaurant-inn: tastes of Japan and California, with no shortage of relaxed luxury.
Single Thread is only a month old and the anticipation surrounding its debut is unmatched for any Bay Area restaurant—period. There’s no hiding from the fact that it wants to reach three Michelin stars in record speed. One model: Napa Valley’s Meadowood, but without two pools or a croquet court.
It’s the tale of a chef and a farmer, husband and wife Kyle and Katina Connaughton, who met at a punk rock concert as teenagers in Southern California. They’ve traveled far and wide, thanks to Kyle’s cooking roles. Most recently, Kyle ran the research and development wing of The Fat Duck, England’s most prominent modern gastronomy restaurant. Previously the couple lived in Japan, where “each one of us had to find our own way,” Kyle says.
He oversaw the restaurant for Michel Bras, one of the titans of French haute cuisine, at Lake Toya; Katina learned sustainability strategies on a strawberry farm. Japan introduced the pair to the concept of ryokans (Japanese inns and restaurants), with their balance of hospitality, elegance and local produce that eventually led to Single Thread. These influences stuck with them in every possible way, whether in the garden, the dining room or the kitchen.
Their five-acre farm, near the San Lorenzo Vineyard and Russian River, is a few miles from the restaurant. There, Katina has a full-time team of gardeners and foragers (including one of their kids) embracing the ancient Japanese calendar of 72 micro-seasons.
The 55-seat dining room boasts South American walnut tables that are free of formal tablecloths, while a dozen woven screens showcase the DNA strands of a different vegetable in its prime each month. Ask about the donabe (ceramic Japanese pots) illuminated in rows in the kitchen, or where a certain plate hails from, and chances are you’ll receive a lesson about a fossil-rich clay in Hokkaido or an eighth-generation artisan near Kyoto. Need we mention the beloved (or frightening) automated Toto toilet?
When it comes to food and Japan, mignardises (small bites) are called wagashi (Japanese confections), and a fish dish would be Mt. Lassen trout ibushi-gin with an umami punch from a shio-koji vinaigrette. Sonoma grains are cooked in the aforementioned donabe with black truffles so fragrant you can hear Auguste Escoffier weeping. Flavors are pure and clean, but not subtle. Main ingredients are elevated with captivating sidekicks or a touch of avant-garde trickery. Kyle is co-founder of the Healdsburg cooking innovation lab Pilot R + D, so you’ll encounter some age-old methods like the donabe and the hearth, with creations like a potato starch wafer (the “bread course”) that breaks but doesn’t shatter.
Over the course of an evening, from opening canapés upstairs on the rooftop patio to the last sip of freshly whisked matcha (green tea) with a parting of chocolate and fruit-preserves truffles, you’ll experience 11 formal courses that lightens your wallet by $295—and that’s excluding wine pairings or one of the five private dining rooms on the second floor. (Those start at $800.)
Thankfully, it’s an A-list team to boost our confidence for these ambitions. Pete Seghesio of the iconic wine family owns Single Thread’s farm. Kyle and Katina’s chef de cuisine, Aaron Koseba, held the same post at the venerable Aubergine in Carmel. Pastries are handled by Thomas Keller and Michael Mina alum Matthew Siciliano. David Sisler, the charismatic general manager, hails from Saison.
This crowd certainly knows its audience: those who don’t notice how many zeros are to the right of the 10 for that bottle of 1960s Château de Pommard in the cellar. That’s a good thing, since jet-setting diners from all over the globe will be descending—and inevitably, young Bay Area diners splurging on a brag-worthy meal. Or veteran society diners tired of The French Laundry.
Despite the buzz and fancy pedigrees, Single Thread is not nearly as intimidating as it might seem. You know when your friends return from Tokyo and say, Everyone is so nice there? That’s omotenashi, the Japanese emphasis on unsurpassed hospitality, and smiles are everywhere at Single Thread.
Meet the Sommelier: Evan Hufford
Evan Hufford strides across the room with the purpose and perfect posture of a seasoned distance runner. He’s both dapper and disarming, bringing none of the snobbery that usually comes in the highest tier of wine service.
(He won’t shame you for butchering the pronunciation of Txakolina.)
The 32-year-old ran the wine programs for Saison and Michael Mina in the city, and served high rollers at Joël Robuchon’s Las Vegas hotspots. He launched his career at the esteemed Native American-inspired restaurant Kai in Chandler, Arizona, and in his downtime, teaches aspiring sommeliers at the San Francisco Wine School—so, yes, ask questions!
Now at Single Thread, Evan is pairing wines from the Alto Adige region of northern Italy with a series of opening bites, a 2004 riesling via Germany’s Pfalz with foie gras and a 2002 Calera pinot noir, by way of the Central Coast winery Jensen Vineyard, with the aged duck.
That’s not to mention the local offerings. Hufford has curated selections from some of wine country’s best pinot noir producers, including small productions of Ross Cobb and Ceritas. “Ross Cobb’s pinot noirs are so ethereal,” Evan says. “They age beautifully.”
He also praises a 1962 Charles Krug cabernet sauvignon, dubbing the bottle a “portal to a different era in California wine.” On the French front, he’s sourced 1980s Mas de Daumas Gassac, a quirky cult favorite of oenophiles.
If you’re in the mood for something different, Evan’s got a few creative choices up his sleeve to pair alongside Single Thread’s Japanese-influenced cuisine.
“We are using sakes at all ends of the flavor spectrum,” he says, “from a very delicate sake with a touch of sweetness to match our lightly charred yellowtail with a satsuma mandarin curd, to a very umami-rich sake with our cherry blossom wood smoked trout.”
He doesn’t rule out bringing beer to the table, either. Evan will keep you on your toes.